History drives small town registries to put deeds online

History drives small town registries to put deeds online

More towns are teaming up with technology companies to get their land records online, and it’s not cheap. So why are they making the investment? Ease of access to real estate documents is the easy answer. But what gets these small communities really excited about going digital is preserving local historical documents with a backstory that might otherwise get lost or forgotten. 

The practical reason for digitizing deeds is to give individuals buying or selling a property -- and their mortgage companies -- easy access to land records from anywhere. “When you file a mortgage, they hire a title company -- not a local person -- that needs to do the research to clear the title to make sure the property is clear,” said Alfredo Frauenfelder, the Xerox account executive handling Cumberland County, Maine’s move to online deeds using Xerox’s 20/20 Perfect Vision scanner. "It’s not just local people [who] are involved in a land ownership transaction.

And with real estate often a key part of a small town’s economy, having records that are accessible and reliable is critical. “Traditionally, real estate has been a very important part of our economy in Massachusetts,” said Bill O’Donnell, the register of deeds from Norfolk, Mass., – another town that hired Xerox to get its deeds online. “If people didn’t have confidence in our records, that would jeopardize our market. The principal users are the lawyers, engineers, everyone involved in the real estate market.”

John Adams said what?

But it’s talking about the historical side of the records digitization project that really piques people’s interest, O’Donnell said. Norfolk is in the process of converting 250,000 handwritten deeds from 1793 to 1900 to text, and has found references to the founding fathers in its records.

“We’re seeing people use it for genealogical and historical purposes. In one of the John Adams deeds, he talks about his philosophy that people should learn Greek and Roman, and he instructs how he thinks the students should learn those languages in a deed giving some land to the town of Quincy. In another deed, John Adams talks about John Hancock as a great benefactor for the state of Massachusetts and the U.S. for his service in the Revolutionary War.”

And history can sometimes lead to change in ownership. In Cumberland, Register of Deeds Nancy Lane helped the Boston office of the Coast Guard with lighthouse ownership. “I’ve done some work to help the Coast Guard find lighthouses that they’ve misplaced," she said. "They owned some in the state of Maine prior to Maine becoming a state  -- when it was part of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts]."  Lane steered officials to the Massachusetts registry, " because we were part of [them] back then. They didn’t know that and it helped them figure what was theirs.”

Getting the older records online was not inexpensive for Cumberland, Lane said, but worth it to make that history more available to the community. New deeds are part of an ongoing contract with Xerox that doesn’t add extra cost. “It was a significant expense to get the older records,” said Lane. “However, since that has been accomplished, today's work is just part of the contract price.”

In Norfolk, the registry staff provides images of the documents on CDs to Xerox, which puts them in a TIFF format on a thumb drive and sends it back to Norfolk. O’Donnell’s staff reviews the documents for errors and loads the images into the registry computer system, where they are available to the public online. In Cumberland, Lane’s staff uses Xerox’s 20/20 Perfect Vision scanner to digitize the documents for online use.

Dying art of cursive

One of the major issues the Norfolk register tackled was how to make the older documents with elaborate handwriting readable to a generation not being taught cursive.

Part of the town’s contract with Xerox is to transcribe the documents word for word -- a process that includes a training course in what O’Donnell calls “old school cursive writing,” so transcribers know how to read certain words and what style and syntax to expect.

Cumberland County does not currently have transcriptions available but is working with Xerox to the same end.

“A few generations from now people aren’t going to be able to read cursive,” O’Donnell said. “I take seriously we are custodians of these land records back to 1793. The integrity of the land recorders in the recording system would be enhanced with the transcription of the handwritten deed documents."

"If people can read them easily online,” O’Donnell said, “they come alive for so many.”

The transcription project is another significant cost, O’Donnell said, but modernization efforts are often expensive on the front end. “It is my hope that when this project is evaluated 25 years from now," she said, "those who use the records for real estate transactions and those that examine the records with a genealogical and historical interest conclude it was a project well worth doing."

For now, the deeds in Norfolk are searchable by name and address, and in Cumberland just by name. But both counties hope to make the documents more accessible in the future. “At some time in the future we will be looking at and evaluating word-based searches,” O’Donnell said. In Cumberland, a subject-based search will be available very soon in the office, but an online version is still a ways away, Lane said.

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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